When Russia and China come up as subjects in the media and in political and academic discourse (as they frequently do), they are discussed in terms of bilateral relations, as a segue into a discussion of regional and global politics, as authoritarian threats to the West, or as examples of attempts at authoritarian modernization. Ever since Bobo Lo and I endeavored to compare Russia’s and China’s roads to modernization (see “A 21st Century Myth: Authoritarian Modernization in Russia and China”), I cannot help feeling that a comparison of these two civilizations and their centralized states, as they both look for an appropriate response to the Western democracies, would reveal not only the dramas of undemocratic societies and an understanding of the limitations of modernization efforts by top-down governments, but also the challenges that the West faces—challenges that it is, to date, incapable of assessing correctly.
Observing the authoritarian experiments of these two serious global actors (although one of them has been weakened), as well as their search for an appropriate international role, has made for interesting viewing, revealing several paradoxes: first, the paradox of stability covering up a deeper instability and impending upheavals; second, the paradox of economic growth that is most likely only a brief respite before a precipitous fall; third, the paradox of outward displays of force that conceal inner weakness and disorientation. These paradoxes illustrate that there is a conflict between perceptions and reality in these two authoritarian states. The only question is to what extent they are the results of conscious distortions of reality as opposed to naivety or unwillingness to accept inconvenient truths.
Were Arnold Toynbee alive today, a comparison of Russia and China would provide him with ample material for his theories on the rise and fall of civilizations. Perhaps, Samuel Huntington would have revised some of his conclusions on reform from the top and the role of the middle class in modernization. I hope, too, that Francis Fukuyama will have a chance to compare the modern evolutions of Russia and China, and their systems’ struggles for survival, in the upcoming second volume of The Origins of Political Order.
The West should be particularly concerned about the future of these two models of the centralized state. The impact that Russia and China have on global security and the world economy is not the only cause for concern. More importantly, both authoritarian systems have found a way to exploit liberal democracy, and both have been quite successful at doing this. Since the fall of Communism, Russia’s personalized regime has been able to use the West as an important guarantor of its stability. It has also been sponging off liberal democracies, in the form of its elite’s personal integration into Western society. This integration has led to the creation of powerful pro-Kremlin lobbying structures that are undermining the normative foundation of liberal democracy (in fact, the Western politicians often don’t even recognize that this is what is happening). It is unclear how the Putin regime will survive, now that it has embarked on the path of consolidating itself by rejecting the West and treating it as an enemy.
Through the force of economic might, China earned the West’s admiration and is now treated as a future global superpower, forcing the United States to struggle with the question of how to adapt its policy to this perception. Moreover, it has made the United States, still the world’s only superpower, its debtor.
Regional and global stability, as well our assessments on the prospects for liberal democracy to formulate foreign policy equal to these challenges, are contingent on Russia’s and China’s successful exit from the centralized state model, in which the state survives by limiting society’s freedom.
Thus far I have been interested in differences between the Russian and Chinese authoritarian models. While both regimes are repressive, they differ in their approach to governance, ideology and adaptability to changing external circumstances. Both countries come from long traditions of despotism, but differing ones. Thanks to Confucian influences, China has certain moral checks on authoritarian leadership. The principle of meritocracy has made for an efficient bureaucracy that is the envy of other countries (at least in Asia). As for the Russian tradition of governance, it has always been based on absolute power, unrestrained by moral taboos. Russia’s all-powerful predatory bureaucracy has turned into a Leviathan that has for centuries been bent on destroying any reform impulses arising from the elite or from society as a whole.
The Russian personalized power matrix cannot reproduce itself without resorting to a great power agenda (derzhavnichestvo), militarism and neo-imperialism. These assume the need for spheres of influence to justify the existence of a powerful centralized state with geopolitical aims. Historically, Russia’s militarism is a very special case. There were perhaps two similar cases of militarism: those of Sparta and the Aztec Empire. These involved a militarization of everyday life that turned the population into an army at the ruler’s disposal. Relics of such militarism still exist in today’s Russia, and Putin is now trying to revive them.
As far as I can tell, China conducts a much more cautious foreign policy and does not openly aim at constructing the same kinds of spheres of influence as does Russia. Chinese militarism (if indeed the term can be applied to China’s efforts to strengthen its military might) does not involve mobilizing the population in its everyday life and turning the issue of military might (as opposed to economic might) into a crucial factor for consolidating society.
Russian authoritarianism is characterized by the dominance of a personalized authority that acts on behalf of the state. However, especially given weakened individual authority, bureaucracy is a powerful force that can take a leader hostage—a fate that may yet befall Putin. Nevertheless, collective leadership was a model that was relegated to the ash heap of history with the demise of the Soviet Union. The Communist ideology that legitimated the Soviet Union is also a thing of the past. Nowadays the Kremlin’s ideology is a weird concoction of pragmatism and great-state aspirations, coupled with claims to a unique Russian civilization (“Russia’s special path”).
As for China, so far the collective leadership remains in power, and there are no signs of the return of personalized rule. The collective leadership arrangement better reflects the balance of power among elites and the nomenklatura. But more importantly, the Chinese system has established term limits for its leaders: They must step down after two terms to be succeeded by a new symbol of power and a new moderator of clan interests. While China still officially retains Communist ideology, its role has been reduced to that of symbolic rhetoric, reminiscent of the role that it played in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Bobo Lo has drawn attention to the difference in degree of political and economic freedom in Russia and China. Until recently, Russia had offered greater prospects for political pluralism, although those prospects did not extend to the monopoly on power. In China, political pluralism and freedom of expressions are far less developed, but the country offers greater economic freedom, which jump-started its economic growth.
Finally, the Russian state and political system are in a state of decline. Herein, I believe, lies the main difference between the two countries. Unless Russia’s decline is reversed in the next ten to fifteen years, it will have a hard time preserving its state and geographic integrity. Several factors may bring about the crisis of the Russian state: the absence of a systemic alternative to absolute power; gradual depletion of the resources that fueled the personalized power system; demographic problems and labor shortages preventing economic growth; or an inability to create a high-tech economy under the personalized-power framework.
Moreover, the events of the past twenty years have conclusively demonstrated that the Russian system cannot be reformed or transformed from above. It requires a jolt from below— pressure from society itself. However, it remains to be seen whether the new Russian revolution will result in a new dictatorship or will create the foundations for a rule-of-law state.
China is in a different stage of development. The Chinese are confronted with the challenges that Russia had to confront in the 1930s during Stalin’s industrialization. Back then, Russia was transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. China is yet to complete its transition to an industrial society—a transformation that can take place under an authoritarian framework. Thus, in many respects, China owes its economic success to the fact that it has not yet exhausted its extensive potential for growth. But sooner or later, perhaps very soon indeed, China will be forced to look for a way out of the conundrum that Gorbachev faced in the late 1980s, when he was confronted with the conflict between an antiquated system ill-suited for the challenges of post-industrial society. The Chinese conflict may prove more explosive than the confrontation at the last stages of the Soviet Union, especially considering that the new generation of China’s youth and its middle class are not as amenable to living under the archaic system as the population of the Soviet Union was. It cannot be ruled out that China’s clan system of collective leadership will be unable to ensure its own survival, resulting in a reversion to one-man rule. In point of fact, the Russian elite chose to rely on the personalized regime after the old matrix began to fail.
In any case, my readings on China suggest that we Russian liberal analysts are speaking the same language and discussing the same scenarios as the China experts. The articles by Francis Fukuyama, Minxin Pei, Bobo Lo, Andrew Nathan, Andrew Scobell, Yu Liu, Dingding Chen and finally the discussion published in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Democracy and the Washington Quarterly (2012) all testify to the similarities between the two countries. Let me quote a couple of those essays. “The consensus is stronger than any time since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis that the resilience of the authoritarian regime in China is approaching its limits”, writes Andrew Nathan. In Russia, we are a step ahead, believing that the Putin regime has already reached its limits. But the system of personalized power, as an aggregate of institutions and habits, still has not reached the end of its life cycle, thanks to the support of the elite (even some liberals!) and of the populist segments of society. “The regime likes to talk about making itself more democratic”, says Nathan about China. It should be noted that the Kremlin was saying precisely the same thing a year ago but has since stopped playing its “Let’s Pretend!” game and has clearly opted for coercion. Perhaps China is also approaching limits of its “democracy” imitation talk. As Fukuyama warns, “China’s apparent good record today contains many time bombs that will go off in the future.” In Russia, we constantly dwell on our own time bombs, wondering when they will explode.
“No one is able to say for sure whether, when, and how change will come”, say both Bobo Lo and Andrew Nathan. The same is true for Russians. We don’t know exactly when everything will collapse. But we do know that the system has irreparable cracks, and that change is coming. The question is only about when, and what will be the trigger.
The Center for European Reforms’ Charles Grant, analyzing the mounting problems of both states, writes, “The West must hope that Russian and Chinese leaders are bold enough to take on vested interests and push through serious reforms.” No hope for that: The authoritarian experiments in both states have proven that the Russian and Chinese authorities are not kamikazes who will set in motion reforms that will undermine their power. (But am I perhaps wrong about the Chinese leadership?)
The Journal of Democracy’s recent discussion on China could just as well be a discussion on Russia. Tiancheng Wang says that “gradualism” is a non-starter in China, and that China should shun gradualism to opt instead for a quick transition. That is exactly what the Russian opposition keeps saying. Cheng Li deliberates on possible triggers for an uprising in China; in Russia, we are discussing the same question.
Minxin Pei, Andrew Nathan, Cheng Li, Yu Liu, and Dingding Chen discuss deep changes in China that run counter to the West’s view of it as a case of “authoritarian resilience” and its future as a contest between the fear of revolution and the hope for political reform. This sounds a lot like Russian political discourse! The surprising simultaneity with which we, the Russian liberal experts, and our counterparts analyzing China started asking the same questions and coming to the same conclusions makes one wonder where it will all lead. Naturally, this situation begets the question of why these centralized states are experiencing similar problems despite their apparent differences in development and political models. Perhaps globalization and open borders, along with the modern means of socialization and communication, are bringing trends into alignment even as they accelerate development.
Incidentally, it might have seemed until recently that China has thirty to fifty more years of calm before it is saddled with similar levels of discontent as Russia. However, China may soon surpass Russia in terms of public protest and yearning for freedom. In Guangzhou, China’s third largest city, numbering about 14 million people, the entire staff of the local Southern Weekly newspaper took to the streets to protest government restrictions on freedom of speech. As of yet, no one has dared to do something similar in Russia...
There is a cause for serious concern in this context. Here is how Minxin Pei highlights the problem: “China’s declining fortunes have not registered with the U.S. elites”, and U.S. policy toward China still “is premised on the continuing rise of China.” The belief in the continuing rise of China is not unique to the United States; it is characteristic of the West as a whole. The disconnect between reality and perception has become a worrisome trend in Western political and intellectual discourse. For instance, the West believed in the integrity of the Soviet Union even as it had already started collapsing. The anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism were likewise a total surprise to the West. Nor were the liberal democracies ready for the Arab Spring. Not only did the Western establishment believe in the success of Yeltsin’s reforms and Russia’s democratic progress, but it also supported Dmitri Medvedev’s modernization program. Western policies found their reflection in the U.S. “reset” policy and the EU “Partnership for Modernization” with respect to Russia, and even today they are built around these assumptions. Now, after Putin’s turn to repression, the West has no idea how to break with its former illusions without completely losing all analytical respectability. And even as Western politicians have begun to realize that the trajectory of Russia’s development is different from what they expected it to be, their attitude toward China is still predicated upon the belief that it is inexorably becoming a successful global superpower, as evidenced by the so-called U.S.” pivot to Asia”.
There is one more issue that causes concern. As domestic policy experts in both Russia and China talk of the end of resilience, tipping points of social upheaval, and inevitable decline and collapse, Western foreign policy analysts and Western business interests seem fixated on mantras in praise of Russia’s stability, its revival as a new “center”, and the rise of China. It is as if we were discussing completely different countries! What price will the West pay for suffering yet another disappointment?
“The Coming Collapse: Authoritarians in China and Russia Face Endgame”, reads the headline of a 2012 Washington Post column by Jackson Diehl. Many treated the prediction embodied in this title as the musing of an idealist. However, recent events have unfolded so quickly that the “endgame” indeed appears close at hand. Those who recently worried about the rise of the authoritarian “duo” should start to worry about the consequences of its decline.
Of course, I feel some measure of sympathy for all the authors who expended so much effort to describe Russian and Chinese might in their articles and books, trying to prove that these two countries are examples to be followed and alternatives to the Western path—an “Authoritarian International” of sorts. But what can one do: mystifications, even not so subtle ones, always create illusions that can feel pretty comfortable, especially if they reflect traditional stereotypes.
Even Henry Kissinger, the guru of international political analysis, can be wrong in this regard. Not long after election of Dmitri Medvedev as Russian president, Kissinger praised Russia’s evolution: “The last Russian election marks a transition from a phase of consolidation to a period of modernization.” As we know, Russia has been moving in the opposite direction. What if he is also too optimistic in describing China’s might, and in calling for a Sino-American “co-evolution”, in which the United States silently agrees to a global condominium with China? Evidently, it is not enough to listen to leadership rhetoric and observe diplomatic rituals to form a balanced view of what is happening in a given country.
If the impending crisis of the Russian Matrix could deal a blow to the world order on its own, what can be said of the crisis of two centralized civilizations? Both states are nuclear powers; one of them doesn’t even try to conceal its innate assertiveness, while the other has gradually revealed it. One more note of warning: The processes of rapid decline in the case of Russia (and probably a slower one in case of China) coincided with the crisis in the West. And it is hard to expect successful transformations over such vast civilizational spaces, given the unfavorable external circumstances.
The current global political order may be dismantled, and the West is not ready for what might turn out to be the most crucial challenge of the 21st century. We can hardly fathom today what the consequences of a decline and crisis would entail for these two global powers. Let us imagine the simplest scenario.
Imagine that the Russian state fails to reform itself. In its agony, it loses control over the vast territory of Siberia and the Far East (this control is already quite tenuous). Let us assume that the Russian drama terrifies China and that it decides not to intervene. Even in this case, Russia’s fall will change the entire regional architecture. But what if Beijing also begins its fall from grace? Won’t the Chinese regime be tempted to prolong its life through a foreign incursion? Common sense no longer applies when the ruling class loses its monopoly on power. As a matter of fact, both countries have a history of provoking nationalist sentiments and searching for external enemies in order to distract attention from their failures. If the federal center loses control, local elites might act recklessly in border areas. It is hard to imagine how the world would react to these developments, when a crisis that affects even one Security Council member would render current international institutions dysfunctional.
However, it is also hard to imagine that in a crisis Moscow would suddenly decide to take on China (notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union and China did have a military confrontation over a territorial dispute in 1969). The elite in Moscow is busy provoking anti-Western sentiment, but it will stop short of doing the same with respect to China for fear of retaliation. Today it seems equally improbable that the Beijing leadership would lose its mind. But even if the common sense prevails in both capitals, other actors may stoke the fire—the Central Asian countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or North Korea. How would they react to a systemic crisis in either or both nuclear powers? Could they become the indirect cause of the clash of the falling giants? In any event, the failure of the two nuclear superpowers that consolidated the vast Eurasian space may trigger the disintegration of that space. The world order that came about as a result of World Word II and that is still maintained by the UN Security Council will also begin to fragment.
The West needs to start contemplating these future scenarios today, in order to try to find mechanisms that would soften the blow of these potential upheavals. As with California earthquakes, it is better to get ready for the Big One in advance, because it may come least when we expect it, and it could be even bigger than we think.